Often presented as a pre-requisite for democratization, autocrats often weaponize constitutions and legal provisions for their political gains. My research seeks to understand better the conditions under which autocrats decide to rely on a specific institution to remain in power and the implications of these institutional reforms on regime stability.

Dissertation project

Judicial dissent: The role of courts in electoral disputes

Abstract: If the literature on courts in competitive authoritarian regimes has typically viewed the judiciary as a mere window dressing tool or an instrument used by the incumbent to remain in power, empirical evidence from sub-Saharan Africa challenges this assumption. In the last four years, both the Malawian and Kenyan Supreme Courts have ruled against the incumbent and ordered a presidential election rerun. These sparks of judicial autonomy deserve greater scholarly attention. These instances strongly suggest that courts can play a fundamental role not only in consolidating authoritarian control but also, and importantly, democratic development. Hence, my dissertation project aims at identifying the conditions under which judicial dissent occurs during electoral disputes in electoral autocracies. In other words, when – and to what effect – does the judiciary side with the opposition, and why? I argue that institutional reforms can incentivize judges to be more assertive. Effective institutional reforms foster de jure independence and mobilize political actors and civil society members, thus putting the judiciary under scrutiny. In addition to exploring how institutional rules predict the probability of judicial dissent, my dissertation also considers how activists and opposition movements exploit such rules to integrate courts into their movements and win electoral cases. To test my theory and exploit sources of institutional variation, I adopt a mixed-method approach that combines micro-level observational studies using original data and qualitative evidence gathered from archival work and semi-structured interviews conducted in Kenya and Senegal.


Gerzso, Thalia, and Nicolas van de Walle. “The Politics of Legislative Expansion in Africa.” Comparative Political Studies (2022): 00104140221074277.

Abstract: The number of seats in national legislatures around the world rarely changes, Yet, in Africa, a substantial number of countries have regularly increased the number of seats, and these increases have become more common in recent years. Previous research on political offices in Africa’s electoral autocracies has suggested that their numbers and increases are motivated in large part by patronage and clientelist considerations. Is this also the case for national legislatures? Curiously, there is virtually no political science scholarship on legislature size, either in Africa or in the rest of the world. Using a mixture of descriptive statistics to present a new database, as well as econometrics and three case studies, we find that legislative expansion can be causally linked to executive branch manipulation.  Presidents have found it politically useful to expand the size of African legislatures and add a second chamber in order to weaken the legislature and/or control it.

Book Chapters:

“Legal Strategies: Constitutional, Administrative, Judicial and Socio-discursive lawfare,” in Arriola et al. (eds), Democratic Backsliding in Africa? Autocratization, Resilience, and Contention (with Siri Gloppen and Nic van de Walle – Forthcoming at Oxford University Press).

The Potential of Mixed-Methods for Qualitative Research, “in Cyr and Goodman (eds), Doing Good Qualitative Research (with Rachel Beatty Riedl – Under contract with Oxford University Press).

Working papers:

A Two-Headed Creature: Bicameralism in African Autocracies

Abstract: Since the 1990s and its third wave of democratization, 36% African states became bicameral. This sudden trend is puzzling for two reasons. First, bicameral legislatures have been decreased by 33% . Second, although upper houses often aim to improve democratic representation, descriptive statistics show that those second chambers were mostly created in electoral autocracies. Hence, what does explain this resurgence of African senates? Why do autocrats take the risk to create an institution that could reinforce the legislature and the state of democracy? This paper makes two claims. This paper makes two claims. First, I argue that only strong autocrats have the capacity to introduce an upper house in the political system. Second, and related to my first point, autocrats will only create another chamber if it improves autocratic stability. To assess my argument systematically, I provide descriptive statistics from original data and adopt a mix-method empirical strategy.

Institutional Trust in Authoritarian Regimes: Evidence from the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission

Abstract: Some evidence suggests that electoral commissions enjoy a high degree of trust among the public, even in autocratic settings where they are widely seen by experts as tools of the ruling regime. With Zimbabwe being one of the most authoritarian regimes of the region, one could expect the Zimbabweans to be wary of their electoral commissions. Nevertheless, Afrobarometer surveys have shown the majority of respondents expressed their trust in the electoral commission. Hence one may wonder what does shape people’s attitudes towards electoral commissions in an authoritarian regime? Are institutions that are mere window dressing effective at increasing trust in the most autocratic settings, but a potential source of dissatisfaction under more competitive forms of authoritarianism?To solve this puzzle, I elaborate a micro-theory of institutional trust. I argue that individuals’ experiences with the electoral commission shape their attitude towards it. If individuals witness forms of electoral manipulation engineered by the executive branch, individuals will be less likely to trust the commission. To assess my arguments systematically, I use evidence from surveys of more than 4,800 respondents conducted in Zimbabwe by Afrobarometer in 2012 and 2014. I apply a generalized difference-in-difference framework to test whether voters who directly experienced electoral manipulation are more likely to distrust the electoral commission. 

In Progress

Supreme Court Composition and Judicial Autonomy: the Effects of Colonial Institutions

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